Commentary

Poor pay and benefits deplete U.S. firefighting workforce

More brutal fire seasons intensify physical and mental wellness concerns for short-handed teams that beat back the flames

May 1, 2022 11:19 am

Arroyo Grande Hotshots firefighters are seen behind the flames of a backfire they are setting to battle the French Fire on Aug. 24, 2021 near Wofford Heights, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

When wildfire season roared into New Mexico in mid-April — even earlier than usual in our warming world — firefighters answered the calls for help. They showed up across the state to race the dry winds driving flames into the mountains, along the Rio Grande, and into neighborhoods and across ranches. 

Some of the men and women who showed up work for local municipalities, small towns and counties. Albuquerque Fire Rescue’s Wildland Task Force, for example, fought 16 wildland and brush fires in the city and also helped with the Big Hole, Hermits Peak, and Calf Canyon fires, sending out 70 crew members. New Mexico State Forestry and agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also assist with fires.

But the majority of the people who show up when New Mexico goes up in flames work as federal wildland firefighters. As warming accelerates drying in the already arid Southwest, fire season in the western U.S. has gotten longer and fires, larger. 

“Over the last four decades, we have seen the annual area burned [in the western U.S.] increase by over 300%,” bioclimatologist Park Williams said in an interview last year. “Over 300% means three to four times as much land area burning today as would be expected in the 1970s or 1980s.”

The amount of forest land burned has increased by over 1,300% since the mid-1980s, Williams explained. And the area of non-forested lands burned has increased by 165% .

“That trend [of larger fires] was already getting concerning 10 years ago,” Williams said in 2021. “What we have seen in the last couple of years is really blowing people’s minds.” 

The trend is also wreaking havoc with the federal workforce facing these disasters.

Former wildland firefighter Kelly Martin spoke about California’s increasingly dire fire season last year, driven, like New Mexico’s, by drying, overly dense forests: “This really should portend to all of us what the years are going to look like,” she said, “And we cannot keep operating under the same antiquated system that we developed 50 years ago”

Martin, who worked as a wildland firefighter for 35 years for the Forest Service and the National Park Service, now heads up a nonprofit, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. When she first started in the job in the 1980s, federal firefighters would rack up maybe 400 hours of overtime during a summer season.

“Now we’re seeing people regularly working a thousand, 1,500 [hours]. And I think I’ve even heard that there are people out there that are almost working like 2,000 hours of overtime a year,” she said. “This constant immersion in an emergency mode is really having a tremendous impact on people’s mental health and well-being — to say nothing of their physical well-being.”

If a longer fire season with more complex fires isn’t bad enough, the workforce is in a “crisis mode” due to attrition, said federal wildland firefighter Marcus Cornwell. 

“We have less firefighters on the ground at our federal levels because the pay and benefits are not adequate,” he said during an interview in early September 2021, in which he, Martin, and former wildland firefighter Jonathon Golden described the toll a perpetual fire season takes on people. 

I would say we’re really kind of approaching a train wreck, a serious issue where firefighters are tired, they’re kind of challenged mentally and physically.

Marcus Cornwell, federal wildland firefighter

In 2021, Congress approved a pay bump for entry-level jobs, up to $15 an hour. As of mid-February, that pay bump still hadn’t trickled down to many firefighters. A U.S. Forest Service update around that time indicated the agency was hoping to actually boost paychecks by the summer. The Forest Service also said it was trying to identify seasonal firefighters to convert to full-time.

‘Temporary’ jobs lack benefits, health insurance

As things stand, those jobs are classified as temporary, even when the fire season is nearly year-round. About three-quarters of the federal smokejumpers and hotshots — named “hotshot” crews in the 1940s because they work the hottest parts of the fires — are considered temporary employees.

That means the bulk of the federal wildland firefighters lack benefits like retirement and access to affordable, reliable health care. Many end up living in their cars, Cornwell said, when there aren’t crew quarters. 

“As soon as the season’s over, they basically have no ability to access mental health care benefits, to reach out for any kind of long-term physical issues they’re having,” Cornwell said. “You know, once they’re laid off and if their fire family is not there to support them, they have no benefits.”

For many, life doesn’t get easier once they’ve extinguished the flames. Reintegration into family life, non-fire life, especially as the fire cycle accelerates, can be challenging.

During fire season, people miss out on important events, birthdays, anniversaries — even the birth of their children. 

“When that goes on, it becomes a real struggle, and sometimes, we’re able to successfully bury or suppress those memories,” Golden said. “But it comes out in the wintertime. People turn to alcohol or drugs.”

We’ve lost partners and friends to suicide from it all. It’s a real problem within the community that frankly isn’t, I think, talked about enough or addressed as best as it could be.

Jonathon Golden, former wildlands firefighter

Cornwell said he was worried about recruitment for the upcoming season: “Ten, 15 years ago, we would have 400 or 500 applicants for an entry-level fire job on some of the crews I worked on. Now, we’re lucky if we see 50. With those kinds of numbers, we’re headed to a train wreck, where one time there’s going to be a town here in New Mexico that’s going to call for federal assistance, federal help. And guess what? Nobody’s going to show up.” 

So far this year, firefighters have shown up. But we can’t look away from the crisis.

We know why the climate is changing. Humans have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and have continued drilling and emitting at a rapid pace, despite recognizing the need to reduce emissions drastically and immediately to head off the worst of the consequences of climate change. 

And while we might not be able to point to the exact day when the switch flips — when we move irreversibly into a world we’re not prepared to handle — Friday, April 22 provided a glimpse into what that world looks like. 

With 20 serious fires burning in 16 counties, driven by high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds, hundreds of New Mexicans lost their homes, thousands more were evacuated. These huge, hot fires also affect watersheds, forest ecosystems, and plant and animal species. In our warming world, some conifer forests never recover, transitioning instead to scrublands or nurturing other types of trees, including invasive species. We see this happening in places like the Jemez Mountains, where the impacts of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire are vast and long-lasting, and where the Cerro Pelado fire is burning right now. 

Even those of us far from the fires that day felt scared. The day’s winds fanned flames, and also wrought dust storms, damages and deep anxiety.

But there is still time to make choices that can stave off further warming and changes. And there is still time to take care of one another — including those with the hardest jobs. 

Being a wildland firefighter is fulfilling, said Cornwell. “It’s a public service that I think a lot of us feel satisfied doing at the end of the day.” But things can’t continue the way they are now: “We need more money. We need better programs. We need more support.”

About this story:

“The Longest Season: An Our Land Wildfire Special” is available to watch online. You can also watch the full interview with Cornwell, Martin and Golden on the PBS Video App.

This story was originally published by Source New Mexico, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Marisa Demarco for questions: [email protected] Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and Twitter.

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Laura Pascus
Laura Pascus

Laura Paskus is a longtime environment reporter based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Currently, she is the environment reporter for New Mexico PBS, and produces the monthly series, “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future.” Her book “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” was published in September 2020 by the University of New Mexico Press.

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